T. S. Eliot Taught Me the Grit of Being an Expat
I read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for my A Levels and was immediately captivated by the opening of Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Since Junior High, I was determined to study abroad, but not necessarily living abroad, or being an expat. I wanted to experience a different way to learn other than rote.At sixteen, I managed to convince my parents to let me leave Hong Kong to attend this little boarding school in England. My entire extended family from my Mom’s side and school mates saw me off at Kai Tak Airport as if I were never to come back. At Kai Tak, a friend, whom I had been in the same class together since I was four—my entire life at that point—gave me a necklace of a singular well-worn sole-flopping hiking boot replica on a leather string as a farewell gift. He said the necklace was to celebrate the beginning of my travels around the world, my dream of exploration, till my shoes were worn out. I’ve worn out a number of shoes traveling and living in many countries since then. My friend and I have lost touch shortly after the Kai Tak farewell. I still have the necklace, with the leather string shredded, in tatters.
That day at Kai Tak, I was excited and then I was not. I was amazed at myself that I made this happen, and that everyone was there to bid me farewell, and I was almost impatient to be on my own to start my journey. As I waved my good-byes, with my Mom tearfully coaxed me into the overcoat that I would not need till I arrived in London, and as I turned the corner into the restricted immigration area to actually leave Hong Kong, my own tears started to flow. I cried all the way to London and more. I intuitively realized that I had demarcated my life then and there. I was mourning my past and was terrified of the future, the uncertainty, the unknown. And that was, in fact, the beginning of my being an expat.
“In my beginning is my end”
The boarding school was a converted manor house on ten-acre land. I was assigned to a bed by one of the two dormer windows in an eight-bed room for my first term there. In the room, there were two other sixth-formers like me and the rest were fifth-formers. Back then, I only noticed and frustrated over things that were not Hong Kong-like. The newness of the language, the accent, classes of small groups of around five, and doing homework and studying in groups were all rather disruptive to my learning. Or so was my conviction then.
I was not interested in exploring. I ceased to be curious. Nothing was fascinating, all so different, ridiculously ineffectual. I recoiled mostly. I blamed lack of personal space. I told myself that I was missing home—the safety, the known. I found solace in the routine of the boarding school, the predictable, another known.
I missed rote learning. And I could not quite embrace voicing my view on Henry VIII chopping off the heads of his wives just to secure a male heir. I judged my schoolmates’ views during class, not understanding that the Tudors had been part of their makeup. I forgot why I wanted to leave Hong Kong. I forgot my yearning to explore a new mode of learning, momentarily.
Instead, I resonated with T. S. Eliot’s “In my beginning is my end” and projected onto this morbid vision that I would perish in this country manor house as an overly imaginative teenager would. And then in my A-Level history I learned that “In my end is my beginning” was the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots, chosen shortly before her execution.
I became fascinated with life’s circularity, the different expressions of the same ideas, and the perspectives from different angles and cultures. The seemingly differences were actually not so different. T. S. Eliot’s “What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present” gave me the jolt I needed. I needed to embrace the present, which was what mattered. The present matters.
“We shall not cease from exploration”
Shirzad Chamine explains that “we all knew how to explore in a pure way, experiencing great curiosity and fascination in discovery.” And that “Exploring is helpful when understanding a problem or situation more deeply could put you on a better path forward.” The ability to explore therefore opens up the space for discovery, to be in awe, to be fascinated.
By the time I got to Little Gidding of the Four Quartets I was almost a seasoned sixth-former.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It was like the team from Inception had come and implanted me with the concept. In my life since, when I was at my most negative, I found myself arriving, for the first time.
What was your first expat experience like?
I’m curious and would love to hear from you on what it’s like to be an expat nowadays.
How do you use the power of exploration to support you as an expat expert, or an expat executive?
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This post appeared first on LinkedIn on September 14, 2021.